Inside Ooligan: The Art of Wearing Many Hats

I have several friends in various stages of graduate school, and they all hate me. Why? Because I love grad school. For them, grad school means picking a narrow focus (especially in the sciences, where a graduate degree is spent essentially creating and testing your thesis), hopefully something they are already passionate about, and then researching it to death until all the passion is gone and they want to do something completely different. I have a friend who got a masters degree in physics and ended up working in banking. No joke. I, on the other hand, am having a blast in grad school. Sure, it’s a lot of work and the deadlines are stressful, but I’m not losing passion for my subject—I’m gaining it.

Here’s why: getting a graduate degree in book publishing at PSU means learning the art of wearing many different hats. Sure, multitasking is hard, but you also never get bored—especially on the quarter system, where classes are fast-paced, projects are always running, and there are always challenges and surprises. Rather than spending all my time researching just one topic or choosing a narrow focus to begin with (mine was editing coming in), I’ve taken classes and learned from real, hands-on working experience at the press about marketing, editing, social media, and best of all, design. That’s right, I came into this program wanting to be an editor—and I still do—but I’ve also fallen in love with design. This past week I got to make a tip sheet for an actual book. My other grad school friends don’t get how exciting that is, but that’s ok.

While my friends are complaining about their research groups or wanting to strangle their thesis advisor for the twentieth time, I’m working with new professors and new groups of people almost every quarter. At the same time, it is still a small program, so I get plenty of opportunities to get hands-on, real-world experience in the publishing industry. Last quarter, I participated in the heavy copyedit of the book my project team is working to publish as well as doing lots of research on related, socially-minded organizations, possible blurbers, podcasts we might like to reach out to, and more. I edited emails, helped write back cover copy, and witnessed the cover design process. I even got a say in the cover design decision. This quarter, we’re working on sales kits and marketing materials, like the tip sheet I just finished.

In addition to all the classes I’m taking on different areas of the industry (editing, marketing, design, acquisitions, etc.), I’m actually doing things in almost all of these areas through Ooligan Press. For example, I just read a book proposal for acquisitions that I absolutely loved, and I can’t wait to see what happens and if it becomes one of our next projects. I’ll still be writing and defending a thesis in the end, but in today’s world of independent publishers and freelance publishing services, knowing how to do everything with confidence is key. I’ve learned the art of wearing many hats, and I’m just getting better at it the more I work at Ooligan. And you know what? I look good in hats.

How to Apply to Publishing School at Portland State University

Many of you may know that Ooligan Press is a teaching press staffed by students pursuing master’s degrees in the Department of English at Portland State University. Students lead the way in every step of the publishing process with guidance provided by expert faculty. Are you or someone you know interested in joining our program? As the second-year Book Publishing program graduate assistants for the 2017–2018 academic year, part of the work we do for the program includes outreach to potential applicants. We love this program and think it’s really special, but we also know the admissions process can be a bit daunting.
With the Fall 2018 application deadline approaching on April 1, we thought it would be helpful to discuss the application materials in detail. All applications are reviewed by a committee, and we asked committee members to provide us with best practices that prospective students can employ when preparing their application materials. In addition, because we each took different paths to graduate school—Elizabeth entered the program directly after earning her undergraduate degree, and Lisa spent a few years in the “real world” before finding a passion for publishing—we’ve included our individual approaches to the application process. Excluding academic transcripts, the application has three major components, which are discussed below.
Personal Introduction
Application committee’s recommendation: Write a personal introduction that speaks directly to what you want to accomplish with a degree in book publishing. Are you interested in editing, digital, children’s books, sci-fi? There is no one way to write this personal introduction—publishing is made up of people with varied interests and skills—but target it to our program and what draws you to PSU.
Elizabeth: I was fortunate enough to have some supportive undergraduate professors guide me while I was writing my personal introduction. Their two main pieces of advice were to avoid an anecdote about loving to read and to stay very focused on this program. I spent a ton of time on the Book Publishing program’s website so that I would know as much as possible before writing. When it came time to write, I mentioned specific classes and faculty to help illustrate my goals. If you’re still in school or in contact with past professors, I highly recommend that you have them review your introduction; they’ll help you gauge how effective it is.
Lisa: I was anxious about the personal introduction—so anxious that I bought two advice books about writing graduate admissions essays. They ended up being only marginally helpful, though, because publishing occupies such a unique and relatively small space in the field of graduate studies. The best thing I did was look at description on the Book Publishing program’s website and break the personal introduction prompt into the following three questions:

  1. How do my experiences make me a strong candidate?
  2. Why am I interested in this specific program?
  3. What are my goals after I achieve this degree?

Aptly enough, I wrote most of my personal introduction during a brainstorming session on the flight back from my trip to Portland to check out the PSU campus. It was a fun, inspirational visit, and the words flowed easily. When the time came to write the formal essay, I had a wealth of notes to choose from to create a cohesive statement for the application committee.
Writing Sample
Application committee’s recommendation: Writing samples are diverse in content, which is completely expected given the broad range of applicant experiences. Some applicants include academic writing because they apply while still at their undergrad institution. Some include creative writing. Some applicants include professional examples, like editing samples or marketing writing, because they are coming back to school after several (or many) years in industry. And some people don’t include “writing” at all—designers and web developers submit samples of this type of work all the time. You can include many different kinds of work or choose to submit writing from one field. The main thing is to show your best work in an academic, professional, or creative sense so that the committee can see what kind of work we can expect from you during your time in the program.
Elizabeth: The writing samples definitely stressed me out the most with this application. I was concerned that I needed samples that reflected the publishing industry, but I had limited internship experiences. I ended up using two works of writing from my undergraduate classes. I paired a critical theory paper with a short creative nonfiction piece. I was applying for the program as an aspiring editor and hoped to show a grasp of writing style and analytical ability.
Lisa: I was out of school for a few years before I applied to the program, and I didn’t have anything from my time as an undergraduate that was relevant to include as a writing sample. Instead, I drew from my work as an editor of human resources manuals and a communications specialist. My submission was diverse in nature; in addition to editing and professional writing samples, I included poster designs and an email marketing campaign. I had also recently completed a writing course at Story Studio Chicago, so I rounded out my submission with two fiction samples that came out of my work in that class.
Letters of Recommendation
Application committee’s recommendation: Letters of recommendation can be from a wide variety of sources. Professors, bosses, colleagues, editors, or mentors, just to name a few. Show the committee that you have people in your corner that can speak to your initiative, quality of work, thought process, integrity, or community involvement. These letters support the other pieces of your application, so ask people who can speak to the qualities you highlight.
Elizabeth: As an undergraduate student, it wasn’t a stretch for me to ask three of my professors for letters of recommendation. However, professors are busy people and get many requests for letters during registration periods, so you’ll want to make it as easy as possible for them to help you. I prepared a set of notes for each of the professors I approached. I included information about the program, my goals, and a few relevant things I had done as an undergraduate student. Additionally, I made my request three full weeks before the application was due to give them ample time (professors procrastinate too).
Lisa: It didn’t seem appropriate to reach out to my undergraduate teachers (I studied theater performance, for one!), so I instead focused on my professional contacts. My boss and two of my coworkers were kind enough to write me recommendations. A forewarning: if you’re asking people to craft a letter who aren’t used to writing this type of recommendation, give them a thorough breakdown of what is expected in this sort of letter and as much advance notice to write it as possible.
We hope this was helpful for those of you considering applying to our program. Anyone with aspirations within the publishing field is encouraged to apply—the work we do here provides a hands-on experience that is not replicated in any other graduate program.
Portland State University’s graduate program in Book Publishing allows prospective students to begin courses during the Fall, Winter, or Spring terms. Applications for the Fall 2018 term are due April 1. For more information, please visit our website.